The Handsome Family
Holy Sorrow! Seems like no one could sing more somber and disinterested than Stephin Merritt. Handsome Family vocalist Brett Sparks may have Merritt beat on one other count as well, “Lowest Voice on Planet Indie.” This is standard fare for The Handsome Family, a husband and wife duo, Brett and Rennie Sparks, who have been cranking out oddball, cult-of-rusticity songs since the mid-’90s. Comparisons between their music and Freakwater, Clem Snide, and a legion of sorrowful alt-country acts is fitting, but always comes short. Whether you like their witty, melancholic tunes or not, The Handsome Family are a truly unique group. Twilight, their fifth full-length, testifies to their originality and greatness. The images familiar to Handsome Family fans are back in full: autumnal decay, pets, decadence, loneliness, and lunacy. Snapshots of a fragmented life in the upper Midwest. (The Handsome Family’s music would have been a fitting soundtrack for Fargo.) They are expert practitioners of troubadour-ish dark humor, as on “So Long”: “So long to my dog Snickers who ate Christmas tinsel/So long to Mr. Whiskers who jumped out of a window and to the family of gerbils who chewed out of their cage and the little brown rabbit I ran over by mistake.”
Rennie’s writing on Twilight is as provocative and eerie as on Milk And Scissors (1996) or Through The Trees (1998). On “All the TVs in Town,” Rennie is in top form: “The psychotics in the park howling up at the sky and the silent airplanes slowly drifting by/sometimes it all seems to glow as bright as the light from all the TVs in town.” Brett’s somber delivery could bring tears to any eye (Is it me, or is Brett’s voice sounding more and more like Garrison Keillor’s? Especially on “I Know You Are There.” Don’t let this coincidence send you running for the hills though. You’d be missing out on so much). Twilight is not without moments of merriment, and features a few slightly up-tempo two-step numbers. One could even cut a rug, albeit in slow motion, to “Peace in the Valley,” “So Long,” “A Dark Eye,” and “Cold, Cold, Cold.” (But since when has danceability been the primary category for greatness?) Twilight should make a fitting soundtrack to the coming Autumn. Although it’s not recommended for use by those on serotonin uptake inhibitors.
Carrot Top Records, 935 West Chestnut, Suite LL15, Chicago, IL 60622; http://www.carrottoprecords.com